* * * MARY J. BLIGE "No More Drama" MCA
In the world of hip-hop soul, where everybody's talkin' about romance, social issues and cutting loose, success is more about the messenger than the message. Mary J. Blige, long considered the queen of hip-hop soul, may not quite possess the authoritative roar of her earlier counterpart, Aretha "the Queen of Soul" Franklin, but the Bronx-born artist's highly personal style has been snapping listeners to attention since her gritty 1992 debut, "What's the 411?"
Now 30, Blige has weathered the travails of many fast-track superstars, and here she shares her new appreciation for positivity and inner peace. Although, perhaps inevitably, not as innovative as her early recordings, "No More Drama" (due in stores Tuesday) seamlessly incorporates the smoother soul and gospel flavors of 1999's "Mary" with her trademark blend of hip-hop, funk and R&B. Reflecting her hard-won optimism, the vocal choruses soar almost giddily behind her heartfelt crooning and confessional rapping.
Such numbers as "Where I've Been" and the thank-you-God "Testimony" offer lessons learned, but Blige also celebrates with such upbeat consciousness tunes as "Family Affair." She pulls off the bluesy ballad "PMS"--yes, a dead-earnest venting of premenstrual woes--without sounding silly. Yet there's a subtle playfulness behind the moving-on/looking-up title track, which is framed within the instrumental strains of the theme from the soap opera "The Young and the Restless."
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.